The Indian government faced off against opposition parties and a hunger-striking activist yesterday as it vowed to push a controversial anti-corruption bill through parliament.
Parliament met for a special three-day session devoted to the new legislation which would create an independent lokpal or ombudsman to probe corruption among senior politicians and civil servants.
The bill has been condemned as weak and ineffectual by critics, including veteran activist Anna Hazare, 74, who began a three-day public fast in Mumbai yesterday to press demands that the law be redrafted.
A similar protest by Hazare in August had galvanized millions of people who took to the streets of cities across India in a spontaneous outpouring of anger and frustration with the endemic graft that blights their daily lives.
The main points of contention focus on the ambit of the ombudsman’s office and its powers of investigation.
The government bill offers only limited jurisdiction over the prime minister and requires the ombudsman to put any criminal probes in the hands of the government-controlled Criminal Bureau of Investigation.
Hazare and a number of opposition parties want the ombudsman’s office to have its own, independent investigative team.
Indian Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansa said the coalition government was confident of getting the law passed over the objections of its critics.
“We are sincere about the passage of the bill. We have a majority,” Bansa told reporters.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration, which has been tainted by a series of high-profile corruption scandals, has a lot riding on the new legislation as it battles against accusations of policy drift.
The mass demonstrations triggered by Hazare’s campaign in August had forced a review of the bill’s initial draft and observers say any further climbdown on the government’s part would be very damaging politically.
With key state elections looming, Hazare has threatened to take his protest to those regions going to the polls and tens of thousands of his supporters have vowed a campaign of civil disobedience if the bill is passed in its present form.
Many see a new national hero in Hazare, who models himself on India’s independence icon Mahatma Gandhi.
However, critics see an autocrat who uses undemocratic methods to force his views on parliament and offers false hopes that a single law can end corruption in Asia’s third-largest economy.
Writing in the Times of India yesterday, Inidan Law Minister Salman Khurshid said the government had “no hesitation in acknowledging” Hazare’s role in pushing the anti-corruption issue up the national agenda.
“But it is an infant idea that can be killed by pessimism or obduracy,” Khurshid said.
Hundreds of people gathered ahead of Hazare’s public fast at an open recreation ground in Mumbai, where security was tight with several thousand police deployed.
“What is going to be passed in parliament today is a farce. This is not the bill that we want,” said Vijaykumar Pulstya, 39, who came from far-away Haryana in northern India to support Hazare.
Phoolsingh Maurya, a 70-year-old former head teacher, said public frustration with the government and official graft had reached breaking point.
“We have come to the stage where this government has to go. We cannot tolerate corruption for decades,” he said.